Mark Frost, The Lost Companions and John Ruskin’s Guild of St George: A Revisionary History

Mark Frost, The Lost Companions and John Ruskin’s Guild of St George: A Revisionary History (London: Anthem Press 2014) 264pp. Hb £60.00. ISBN: 9781783082834

In 1871 John Ruskin launched a fund for the establishment of a new society. Ruskin envisaged a utopia based on medieval agrarianism, one which was community-minded and which opposed the advances of industrialization. It was also to be structured, somewhat contradictorily, as a communistic yet strictly hierarchical society. Ruskin himself was to be the ‘Master’. When this society was finally codified, in 1877, as the Guild of St George, it was said to consist of ‘a body of persons who think [...] that the sum which well-disposed persons usually set aside for charitable purposes [...] may be most usefully applied in buying land for the nation, and entrusting the cultivation of it to a body of well-taught and well-cared-for peasantry.’1

The reality was very different. The failures that resulted from the clash between Ruskin’s idealism and the reality of Guild work have not been ignored by critics. Even E. T. Cook, co-editor of the Library Edition of Ruskin’s works and a committed follower of the Master, acknowledged that the agricultural projects ‘produced very little except a plentiful crop of disappointments.’2 The Guild was never more than a few scattered holdings of land and small, disconnected projects. One of the most frequently cited reasons for this failure has been Ruskin’s declining mental health after 1878, which meant that he was unable to attend to Guild affairs, combined with the legal difficulties which beset the society in its early years.

In The Lost Companions and John Ruskin’s Guild of St George, Mark Frost agrees that these factors were important in shaping the course of the Guild’s rocky history. He urges, however, that we listen to the lost voices of ‘Companions Militant’, the working-class men and women who gave up their old lives to work the land under the doctrines of Ruskin’s vision. Their understanding was that the Master would, in return, look after their welfare. Frost’s project was sparked by a chance finding, in the archives of Wellesley College, of an article by one William Buchan Graham. The article revealed the hardships experienced by the Guy family, who worked the Cloughton Moor estate near Scarborough, and suggested that Ruskin was ultimately responsible for the neglect they suffered. This, alongside several other discoveries and a return to previously neglected sources, has allowed Frost to present a ‘polyphonic account of the Guild’ (188). In allowing these working-class voices to be heard, Frost paints a balanced and sensitive picture of the ‘very real nightmare’ experienced by these Companions.

Frost begins with a look at the influences on Ruskin’s social thought: his upbringing and attitude towards Evangelicalism, Romanticism and Toryism, the environment and modern science; his precarious mental condition; and the death of Rose La Touche. Frost suggests that the contradictions inherent in Ruskin’s utopian vision can only be understood by recognizing the ‘interwoven temper of Ruskin’s own mind’ (26).

The second chapter tracks the origins of the Guild vision from the late 1860s. Chapter Three opens with the first issue of the epistolary periodical Fors Clavigera in January 1871, the organ through which Ruskin corresponded with his society. The early 1870s witnessed several social projects which were to form part of, or were precursors to, Guild work: the foundation of the publishing company George Allen and Co. (1871), the St Giles street-sweeping project (1872), the cleaning of a pool on the River Wandel near Carshalton (1872), and the establishment of a tea shop in Paddington run by former servants of the Ruskins, Harriet and Lucy Tovey (1874-76).  Most bizarre of all, Ruskin brought together a group of Oxford undergraduates to build a stretch of road, a mile long, near Hinksey (1874-75). The project was intended to imbue the students with a sense of the moral good of physical labour. By 1876 the road lay in ruins.

The next three chapters concern the activities of the Guild proper. Frost draws attention to little known correspondence, now housed in the Rosenbach Library and Museum, from Ruskin to the curators of the Sheffield Museum at Walkley, Henry and Emily Swan. While the museum is perhaps the best known example of Guild work (and certainly the most successful), Frost’s deft analysis of the Rosenbach correspondence highlights both Emily’s important role there, and Ruskin’s faith in her abilities. Chapter Four introduces the working-class Companions Militant who, Frost convincingly argues, were neglected during Ruskin’s time as Master, and who were later silenced by the Guild’s middle-class Trustees. William Buchan Graham, James Burdon, John Guy and family, and William Harrison Riley, faithfully followed Ruskin’s instructions and were (mostly) obedient when sent to different agricultural projects.

In 1881 Graham visited Ruskin at his home Brantwood, near Coniston, in an attempt to inform the Master of the hardships which the Guy family were experiencing. Graham was quickly dismissed; Ruskin was likely all too aware of the problems, the poor soil and the leaky roof, but he did not want to hear it from a working-class man like Graham. This neglect perhaps led to the death from overwork of Guy’s wife in 1883. Her story is one of the most tragic that Frost has to tell, a sobering event in the reality of Guild life.

Frost’s decision to tell the Guild story in roughly chronological order adds greatly to the coherence of the book. Because of this we are able to trace the evolution of Ruskin’s ideas in parallel with real events, to see where pragmatism failed or prevailed. Further, we can map the increasing frustration and disillusionment of the Companions Militant and are able to see that it was the cumulative result of a number of failures on Ruskin’s part, which caused the disappointments of the 1870s and 1880s. The ‘Timeline of Guild Schemes’ diagram is particularly helpful in this regard, as it provides a visualization of the overlap of different projects.

The Lost Companions is a fascinating book both for those familiar with the traditional critical history of the Guild of St George, and for those who are new to Ruskin’s social thought. It also draws attention to the fact that the Guild has been invigorated in recent years, and has become an important voice on such causes as environmental sustainability. Frost’s dexterous use of new and existing material brings out the true complexities of Ruskin’s experiment. Through meticulous research Frost has uncovered a richer polyphony of stories, giving voice to the working-class Companions who were the foot soldiers of Ruskin’s ideological campaign.

1 John Ruskin, ‘Abstract of the Objects and Constitution of St George’s Guild’, in The Library Edition of John Ruskin, ed. by E. T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn (London: George Allen, 1907), XXX, 3-4 (p. 3).

2 E. T. Cook, Introduction, ibid., xxi-lxxvi (p. xxxiv).

Sarah Hanks, University of Oxford